‘Blindsided’ by a Washington prison closure

The state announced in June it will close Larch Corrections Center. Critics say the decision was made without enough community input and will have harmful repercussions for prisoners and staff.

By: - August 28, 2023 5:00 am

Larch Corrections Center, seen here, is slated to close in fall of 2023. The minimum security facility is located in Yacolt. (Washington State Department of Corrections)

When the state Department of Corrections said in June it would close Larch Corrections Center by October, workers, prisoners, and lawmakers were all among those caught off guard. 

Before the announcement, the minimum security prison in Yacolt – about 20 miles northeast of Vancouver, Washington – housed almost 240 incarcerated people. As of Aug. 21, 130 remained.

Corrections says changes to drug possession laws earlier this year mean the state needs less minimum security prison space. Larch’s remote location and the cost for needed upgrades also made it a good candidate for closure, according to the department.

Supporters of keeping Larch open say Corrections arrived at the decision to close the prison in secret, without input from those who would be affected. 

The closure, they say, will hurt the families of 115 employees who have to relocate, incarcerated individuals who benefit from education and work programs only available at Larch, and Washington’s ability to fight wildfires in the region since Larch prisoners assist firefighting crews. 

“We were all blindsided with this,” said Sid Clark, a corrections counselor at the prison. 

Records show Corrections did consider instead closing other facilities — some of which might’ve had less dramatic consequences for prison staff and imprisoned people compared to shuttering Larch. But ultimately the department passed on those other options and now appears to have no intention of changing course.

‘A really difficult decision’

The closure notice for the facility went out on June 26. According to a timeline from Corrections, the governor’s office, Department of Natural Resources and Office of Financial Management all received a heads-up about the closure in early June.

In a letter at that time, the department said the facility would be “warm-closed” by October, meaning it could reopen if needed.

State prison closures have been uncommon in recent years.

Several units at the Monroe Correctional Complex closed in 2021, but a prison has not fully shut down since the McNeil Island Correctional Center did so in 2011, according to a press release. A special commitment center for sex offenders remains open on McNeil Island.

Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange put a positive spin on the Larch closure when it was announced.

“DOC has worked diligently to lower recidivism rates, create better neighbors and ensure that incarcerated individuals don’t return to us once they get out,” Strange said in a statement. “Of course, our continued success means we can no longer afford to operate all of the prisons we currently have.” 

The June notification came months after Corrections first discussed closing Larch, according to records requested by Teamsters Local 117 and obtained by the Standard. Local 117 represents Corrections workers. 

The documents show that the Yacolt facility wasn’t always the first choice to close.

In emails as recent as January, Corrections officials discussed closing units at the Olympic Corrections Center, south of Forks. Doing so would save the department money while having “zero impact to the community” because many prisoners and staff could move to Clallam Bay Corrections Center, which is about 60 miles north, according to emails. 

In May, the department switched gears and began comparing the effects of closing Larch, Cedar Creek, which is located southwest of Olympia, Olympic or the minimum security unit at Monroe.

A comparison chart from May 25 showed that closing Larch would save the department $14 million. It also showed that Larch would need more than $30 million for maintenance over the next decade, more than any of the other facilities. The next highest was Cedar Creek Corrections Center, which needs more than $24 million over the next 10 years. 

The chart also points to Larch’s remote location, which Corrections cited as one of the main reasons it chose to close it, though it acknowledges that the Olympic Corrections Center is the most outlying prison site in Washington. 

“This is in no way a reflection of the performance of the facility or the employees themselves,Corrections spokesman Chris Wright told the Standard. “This was a really difficult decision, but it was primarily chosen because of its location.” 

‘Trying to erase us from this process’

Since the decision to close Larch was made public, the department was hit with criticism on multiple fronts. 

“They quite literally planned this in secret and did not seek input from anyone,” said Brenda Wiest, vice president and legislative director at Teamsters 117. She said it is “astounding” that Corrections would embark on something this large without gathering more feedback.

State Rep. Greg Cheney, a Republican who represents the district where Larch is located, said if the department was really struggling with money, it should have approached lawmakers sooner to discuss alternatives.

“Nobody bothered to come to us,” Cheney said in an interview. “You can’t tell me they didn’t plan their budget months in advance.”

Cheney joined a bipartisan group of nine lawmakers representing Clark County legislative districts who sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee and Strange on Aug. 8, urging them to reconsider the decision to close Larch. They wrote that the facility plays a “crucial role” in the region and said closing it could hinder state efforts to reduce recidivism.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who is running for governor in 2024, raised concerns about the closure as well, noting Larch’s work crews help with the Department of Natural Resources firefighting capabilities in southwest Washington. 

Franz wrote a letter on July 21, urging Strange to pause the closure plan. Since 2020, Larch crews have served nearly 400 crew-days on active fires, according to Franz’s letter.

“I urge you to keep Larch Corrections Center open until the state can, in partnership with stakeholders, address concerns about the impacts this closure would have,” Franz wrote.

All 115 employees at Larch will be offered new positions either at Corrections or at other agencies, such as the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and the Oregon Department of Corrections, according to the department. 

But for staff, any new job will likely require moving. 

Mark Francis, a correctional sergeant at Larch, emphasized that finding a new job, selling a home, and getting kids into new schools, all in the span of a few months, can be very difficult. 

Officers have not yet been notified of any new job offers as the union is still in the bargaining process. 

A closure timeline obtained by the Standard shows the department acknowledged it would need to let the unions know about the closure so they could begin bargaining. But the department did not indicate that it would meet with them before the decision to close Larch was made public. 

“It’s really as if they are trying to erase us from this process,” Wiest said.

‘We’re going to fight this’

The plan to close Larch is still on track, according to Corrections and Inslee’s office. 

Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesman, wrote in an email last week that there are no plans to delay or change course with Larch. Corrections is working with labor partners, legislators and the community to come up with solutions for their concerns, he added.

“This facility does not meet DOC’s current needs,” Faulk wrote.

And Larch is likely not the only Corrections closure in the near future. 

Already the department has warm-closed 16 living units at eight facilities across the state, according to agency figures. Looking at the number of empty beds and forecasts, the department has indicated they could cut more capacity.

In a letter to staff and a press release, Strange wrote that the department will continue “to evaluate trends and their direct impacts to the department’s capacity.” 

But in emails to other Corrections employees, she wrote that she wanted to make the public aware that there may be more closures in store as the department sees the incarcerated population decline, adding, however, that she “didn’t want to be super blatant about this.” 

Larch advocates, meanwhile, have kept up the fight to save the facility, holding fundraisers, town halls, and signature gatherings. The city of Battle Ground and Clark County councils have both passed resolutions urging Corrections to change course.

Until the last prisoner leaves, Larch supporters will continue to push Corrections to pause or cancel the closure, according to Clark, the corrections counselor. 

“We’re going to fight this to the very end, and at the end, if DOC gets what they want, we’ll deal with that when we get there,” Clark said.

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Laurel Demkovich
Laurel Demkovich

Laurel joined States Newsroom in 2023 after almost three years as a statehouse reporter for the Spokesman-Review. She covers state government, the Legislature and all other Olympia news.